By Kevin Allman and Alex Woodward, Gambit New Orleans
W hether you like a traditional Southern canopy bed or don't mind sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor, short-term rental services like Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and Couchsurfing promise to match you with the perfect place for your taste and your pocketbook. It's a simple transaction: Local landlords (or, sometimes, renters) list a space in their house or apartment through a website. Travelers then rent those spaces directly, foregoing traditional hotels or bed-and-breakfasts (B&Bs).
It's a popular concept. Founded less than seven years ago, Airbnb now operates in 34,000 cities in more than 190 countries, according to statistics provided by the company. A visitor survey conducted by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center last year found that approximately 100,000 visitors stayed in private homes in New Orleans in 2013 — and that 97.2 percent of them were here for pleasure rather than business.
Proponents of short-term rental services praise how easy they are to use, how they give travelers a chance to see how residents of a city really live and their competitive cost (though many short-term rental properties can be just as pricey as traditional hotels). Detractors say services like Airbnb are unfair on several levels: They take up apartments that otherwise would be rented by locals; they turn traditionally residential neighborhoods into tourist zones; and they leave hotel and motel rooms empty (and not paying occupancy taxes).
New Orleans has hundreds of illegal short-term rentals advertised online, but the city traditionally has been lax about enforcing the law. Two years ago, Gambit discovered the city had not sent out a single enforcement letter during the latter half of 2012 — despite millions of dollars' worth of high-profile short-term rentals being advertised in the months before New Orleans hosted Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
Other places have reacted more definitively. Last week, Louisville, Kentucky, joined a number of other cities cracking down on short-term rentals; the city sent out letters to dozens of Airbnb operators, ordering them to cease operation immediately or begin paying fines of $500 or more. In San Francisco (where Airbnb is headquartered), a law went into effect last month requiring Airbnb hosts to file paperwork with the city planning commission, register their businesses with the city and pay a fee.
Last July, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-0 to tighten regulations on unlicensed short-term rentals, which City Council President Stacy Head said were "not paying their fair share of taxes and competing at an unfair advantage. ... We've got to put together a way to regulate, at times restrict, and harness the dollars from them. This is the first step."
Mayor Mitch Landrieu's aggressive welcoming campaign — the post-Hurricane Katrina city as a better-than-ever tourism destination, from Super Bowl bids to the 2018 tricentennial — is all about bringing in tourism dollars, including taxes. District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell dubbed 2015 "the year of enforcement," though enforcement has been a recurring theme throughout Landrieu's tenure, from permit checks at bars to removing blighted properties. Cantrell and other city council members have pledged to enforce existing ordinances on "transient vacation rentals," which are permitted through the Department of Safety & Permits.
Some are dubious. "We don't see any evidence the current laws are enforced," says Bonnie Rabe, president of the bed and breakfast and guest house group Professional Innkeepers Association of New Orleans (PIANO). "If there are new laws, why should we think those are enforced?"
Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association, which represents many hotels in the New Orleans area, says hotels also want a "level playing field" if short-term rentals are allowed to enter the market. There are no measures regulating the density of Airbnbs in an area, while only one B&B can operate within a block.
"(The legislation) claims to level the playing field, but really it just adds another level," Rabe concurs, adding that many of her colleagues have flipped their B&Bs into Airbnbs.
"We have not done a great job of enforcement in the city," Cantrell admitted while addressing short-term rentals at the council's Community Development Committee meeting in December. "We immedi-ately have to look at how to enforce laws on the books ... and be realistic as to what is happening in neighborhoods, and make some decision as to how we regulate."
A map of legal short-term rentals on the city of New Orleans website shows several hundred traditional B&Bs — far less than on Airbnb, which offers an estimated 2,000 rentals, according to a January email from Head that was obtained by our newsgathering partner Uptown Messenger.
Jonathan Harris, Head's chief of staff, told Gambit the issue is off the front burner for now, citing other council business, but that Head understands that several groups — including the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity and the Short-Term Rental Committee — "may be meeting to see if they can come to some consensus or agree on some sort of compromise solution, but she has not heard whether anything has been decided."
While the New Orleans City Council works on drafting a short-term rental compromise, the mayor's office is keeping mum, largely leaving it to the city's legislative body. According to Landrieu press secretary Bradley Howard, the Landrieu administration is working with the City Council "and other stakeholders on the short-term rentals issue," though Howard said there were no other updates.
This week, we had writers look at short-term rentals from several perspectives. Missy Wilkinson is an Airbnb landlord; Anna Gaca lives next door to an Airbnb rental; and Alex Woodward frequently stays at Airbnb properties when he travels. Last, we sent Jeanie Riess to stay undercover at a couple of New Orleans Airbnb properties that struck us as interesting or unusual (though not inexpensive).